When I read the opening paragraph of an op-ed piece in this morning's Albany Times Union, I nearly jumped to the conclusion that it was a right-wing rant. Linda P. Campbell wrote: "I want my country back. The one where a message of personal responsibility and the value of a good education is celebrated, not denigrated with suspicion and hostility."
It turned out that Campbell was talking about the President's address to schoolchildren from last week and the paranoid hysteria it provoked. But that phrase, "personal responsibility," is one that I identify with conservatives. But those who heard or read Obama's speech, even some who had feared it at first, usually ended up accepting it as Campbell described it, as a statement about personal responsibility. Does that make the President a conservative? No, but it did make me think about the existence of two kinds or two concepts of personal responsibility.
When Obama talks about personal responsibility, or at least when he did last week, he's trying to tell kids not to use society as an excuse for doing nothing. When a Republican talks about personal responsibility, he usually means that individuals should expect nothing or want nothing from society. To elaborate slightly, we can imagine Obama saying that individuals have a personal responsibility to do their best on top of what society owes them as citizens and human beings. We can more plausibly infer that personal responsibility is part of each person's reciprocal relationship with society, while for Republicans, the social aspect of personal responsibility is limited to your responsibility not to demand anything from others or demand that government "rob" them to provide you with things.
For Republicans, conservatives and libertarians, "personal responsibility" is a simple two-word mantra, but leaving it at those two words begs some questions. Personal responsibility to whom? For what? If they're unwilling to elaborate, I feel justified in translating the phrase as I usually do when I hear it from such quarters, as "every man for himself." Those four words may actually be a more accurate expression of what most such people actually think. If so, then maybe "personal responsibility" is a term that should be reserved for use by the other side.